Chatter bots are here to help you

Loren King for the Boston Globe

If you’re anything like me (or the other two-thirds of Americans who own a smartphone), your once-pristine touchscreen has gradually grown into a graveyard of untapped apps – a field of forgotten icons, jealously languishing next to the three or four apps you actually use.

And if you’re anything like 2.5 billion other people around the world, one of those trusty standbys is a messaging app.

These are perfect conditions for a bot takeover.

Don’t get scared, the bots in question aren’t the kind that rudely rise up against their makers (looking at you, HAL). These are chatbots, and they’re here to help — reminding you to do your yoga, sending flowers to your gram, or ordering pizza. Harmless, unless you’re avoiding carbs. And they do it all via text. They’re like apps — just without the “app.”


Many of Slack’s 2 million daily users learned to use the productivity app by chatting with its native assistant, Slackbot. And popular chat apps like Telegram and Kik have recently introduced sprawling shops where users can select from a wide range of bots to chat with — weather bots, chess bots, translator bots, music bots, bots that hail Ubers, roll virtual dice, track box scores, or tell better jokes than you. As the exasperated millennial in Kik’s rollout video attempts to explain to her parents, bots are “like an awesome friend who never ignores your texts.”

Perhaps the biggest boon to the bot boom will be Facebook’s M, which will function like an all-purpose assistant within its Messenger app. It remains in beta (and restricted to California) for now, but the estimated 900 million monthly users on Messenger may comprise enough of a surge to burst open a massive market for automated assistance. Facebook also launched an open platform for bot developers. Perhaps in anticipation of what the rise of bots will do to search engines (and websites in general), Google is developing it own intelligent messaging system.


If you’ve been waiting for your very own (sassy) bot companion ever since watching your first episode of “The Jetsons,” there are plenty of them already up and running.

Operator is a burgeoning bot-driven shopping service that combines human intuition and artificial intelligence to tailor the experience. Assist is a 100 percent bot platform that has already made services like Seamless, StubHub, and FourSquare more conversational. Bot banking services like Penny and Digit take a much kinder and more realistic approach to your personal finances than your inner voice tends to. You can talk to the Howdy bot to coordinate meetings and order lunch for the staff, and catch up with personal trainer bot Lark afterwards to make sure you jog off that pad Thai. And there’s Magic, a bot service that can fetch you seemingly anything – especially if you pony up $100 per hour for its premium Magic+ service. (Some bots are fancy.) There are even bots to connect you to other bots, like Luka.

As bots grow more sophisticated (moving toward artificial intelligence from simulated competence) it’s easy to imagine a new wave of bots emerging to assist the 62 percent of smartphone owners who’ve searched for health information on their phones, or the 44 percent who’ve searched real estate, or the 43 percent who’ve looked for jobs.


For now, I’d be happy enough with a bot that will clean all these apps off my iPhone.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.